Nora Jane Struthers is a singer-songwriter who grew up in New Jersey and was teaching high-school English in Brooklyn before moving to Nashville to attempt a full-time career in music. With her band The Party Line, she's just released a new album called Wake. Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Nora Jane Struthers is a singer-songwriter who grew up in New Jersey and was teaching high school English in Brooklyn before moving to Nashville to attempt a full-time career in music. With her band, The Party Line, she's just released a new album, called "Wake." Rock critic, Ken Tucker, has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T HOLDING BACK")
NORA JANE STRUTHERS: (Singing) I used to let this body carry me around. I saw my own reflection, the gazes I found. Now I feel my own skin breathing, swear I never felt so strong. It's like I finally started living in this body when you came along. And I ain't holding back. And I ain't holding back this time. I ain't holding back...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Nora Jane Struthers sings in a clear, unadorned manner. It suits the direct lyrics that fill up her new album, "Wake." Given the content of the songs, the title seems, in part, to refer to an awakening Struthers has had about who she is, what she wants to do and how she wants to sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SAME ROAD")
STRUTHERS: (Singing) A road stretches behind you, and you know where it runs to - a knot in your mind. It's getting harder and harder to unwind. You feel it sure as the sun on your skin. This the same road you've always been traveling.
TUCKER: Struthers uses this album to tell some autobiographical stories. They tend to be terse and quietly witty. In this, Nora Jane lives up to being named after Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man" and Jane Austen. In the song called "The South," Struthers traces her journey from New Jersey to Nashville, proclaiming the South as the place where she feels most at ease, all of this set to a spare, gentle melody.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SOUTH")
STRUTHERS: (Singing) I was born in Virginia. I live in Tennessee. Grandma came from Carolina, but I was raised in New Jersey. It's just something about the air down here. It's much easier to breathe. And I damn sure ain't ashamed of where I come from, but I ain't ever going to leave.
TUCKER: A visit to YouTube brought earlier videos of Struthers singing straight folk music and bluegrass, influences that are consigned to the outer edges of this album. Although the instrumentation is country, there's a rock 'n' roll force and forthrightness on many of the songs here, such as an anthem of self-definition, called "Let Go."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET GO")
STRUTHERS: (Singing) I wrote it down, when I was 14, not to slouch just to seem like I was shorter than the boys. And I started carving out the weak parts until I was a woman I became by choice. And now I'm looking at you picking out a record, trying to find one you think I'd like. And it don't come naturally, but you're giving me a reason to try. I'm learning to let go. I'm learning to let go. Despite my disposition, I've made my decision. I'm learning to let go.
TUCKER: That song, "Let Go," is about the roles women play throughout their lives to fulfill certain expectations. Struthers is pushing back against that. You wouldn't expect anything less from a rock 'n' roller. But Struthers is as prey as any of us are to the way that falling in love can make you dependent - happily, hungrily dependent on the person you're in love with, which is why another song here, "Lovin' You," is, in some ways, even more of a test of feminist principles than "Let Go." In an interview, she referred to this state of mind as strength through vulnerability, and "Lovin' You" expresses that with even more emphasis.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVIN' YOU")
STRUTHERS: (Singing) I've got a lot of things inside of my heart. Before we were together, they were pushing me apart. Love is such a mystery. I just don't understand who I was before you were my man 'cause lovin' you is the best part of who I am. Yeah, lovin' you is the best part of who I am. If I was a forest...
TUCKER: Although she's based in Nashville, and her band, The Party Line, deploys banjo and fiddle and sometimes imports a pedal steel guitar, no one is going to hear the material on "Wake" as pure country music. It's singer-songwriter stuff in confessional mode. But it's rare for her to slip into mere self-absorption. Struthers always sounds alert to what's going on around her, who she's surrounded by, and she forms brisk opinions about all of this.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Wake," the new album from Nora Jane Struthers. Coming up, the creators of the web series, "High Maintenance," about a pot dealer and his clients. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.